Last month an English teacher took to the The Age opinion page to shake his fist at the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) for including Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera on the Year 12 reading list.
Christopher Bantick’s biggest beef was the fact that the book depicts a sexual relationship between a septuagenarian man and a 14-year-old girl, and Bantick (unsuccessfully) argued against the book being included so shortly after the announcement of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. As Bantick said:
The selection panel that chooses the books, has shown gross insensitivity to the potential readers of the book; all the more so at a time when the Catholic Church, rightly, is facing public scrutiny over paedophilic behaviour by priests.
This seemed a huge contradiction to me – on the one hand he was saying it’s good that the investigations into Church abuse are being brought into the public sphere. Yet at the same time, he wanted to hide away a text that included sexual abuse of a minor because he thought it would bring up uncomfortable questions in the classroom.
The discussion about young people and shielding their reading provoked a similar outcry to that of a 2011 article written by Wall Street Journal reviewer, Meghan Cox Gurdon, who bemoaned the increasing darkness of YA books. Gurdon believed there was dishonesty in that darkness, saying: ‘Teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.’
Between Bantick and Gurdon you’d think that young people’s reading habits had to be bubble-wrapped both in the classroom and in their own readership – either because what they’re reading hits too close to home, or is so dishonestly distorted as to send them spiralling into dark reading depressions.
American author Kathryn Erskine was so affected by the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, that she was driven to understand how communities and families dealt with such a violent event. She wrote the beautiful and heartrending middle-grade fiction book Mockingbird in 2010, which concerns ten-year-old Caitlin desperately hunting for ‘closure’ after her older brother is killed in a school shooting. Erskine’s middle-grade book now reads with awful connections to Sandy Hook, particularly for the young age of the victims. I approached Erskine, asking her how Mockingbird may now feel like life imitating art.
I don’t believe it’s a case of life imitating art at all; rather, it’s art expressing what life has already done. There have already been middle school and elementary school shootings as well as high school, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. In such a sensitive area, I would be loathe to make up new situations. Since school shootings at all ages have already occurred, it’s something we need to deal with on a societal as well as an emotional level. In Mockingbird, I made sure that the terrible event had already occurred, and that references to it are introduced gradually so as not to be too frightening for young readers. It’s a book about dealing with the aftermath, the healing process, not the shooting itself. While my books tend to deal with heavy subjects, the point of them is always to give hope because it’s how we deal with horrific events that determines our humanity.
While Erskine’s middle-grade book intended to shed hope and healing on tragedy, Australian young adult author, Kirsty Eagar, provoked questions of sexual assault and victimhood in her 2009 debut Raw Blue. The novel is about a young woman called Carly, who has ground her life to a halt by escaping to the seaside town of Manly where she surfs, works a dead-end job and tries to forget the brutal rape that derailed her life two years ago.
Eagar’s novel is one of the most powerful and honest portrayals of a young woman living in the aftermath of rape. And when I asked Eagar to explain the impetus behind her novel, I was not at all surprised to discover that she wrote Raw Blue in light of disturbing real-life events.
Raw Blue was written in response to the high profile sexual assault cases covered by the Australian media in 2005 and 2006. I was struck by the lack of empathy for the girls involved, and I was furious about it. I’ve since received many emails from people who relate to the main character’s situation, but if anything I wrote the book to challenge attitudes. If you read that story there is no way you can dehumanise or objectify Carly, the main character. I didn’t want her to be some kick-arse ‘female role model’, and I didn’t want her to be an unknowable victim. I wanted her to be real. Relatable. She’s funny, quiet, hard-working, she surfs, she’s met a guy she likes, and she’s also trying to come to terms with her history. I understand the concern about ‘darkness’ in YA fiction, but I also feel that saying you can’t talk about certain topics is incredibly dangerous. Raising the difficult subjects, discussing them, helps to provide a context for some of the things that might be happening in readers’ lives, or to their peers. To me, the bigger question is the treatment not the topic.
Recent events in the world have made me angry, sad and pitifully sickened at the way human beings can treat one another. I’ve been reminded that there are more horrors in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. But such despair in reality suggests that there is a place for it to be read and tackled in young people’s fiction – where they’ll be encouraged to ask questions, have opinions and be moved to react.
Danielle Binks is a Killings columnist and book reviewer on her blog Alpha Reader, with a particular interest in children’s and young adult literature. She is also Digital Editor at Spinifex Press, and is currently working on her first young adult manuscript.